|by Patrick Graham|
After the success of Operation Berlin, where the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau prowled the Atlantic and accounted for twenty-two merchant ships, time was needed to return to a friendly port to rest and repair. On March 22nd, 1941 the two Battlecruisers pulled into Brest, France and began repairs to ready the ships for further operations. The two ships were soon joined by the Prinz Eugen, which returned home from the unsuccessful Operation Rhineubung.
Unfortunately, the port in Brest was particularly vulnerable and the ships found themselves under constant aerial attack. It was deemed that the ships were not safe at Brest, as evidenced by the damage that both ships had received form these attacks. The two ships would also be of much more use in the east where they could patrol Norwegian waters and strike convoys in the North Sea. The decision was made to quickly shuttle the ships through the English Channel, but the plan for such a dangerous mission would take months to hammer out.
The British were well aware of the presence of both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau at the port of Brest through French intelligence and aerial reconnaissance. What they were unsure of was when the two ships would try to make way for safer ports in Germany. To do so would require taking the long way around Iceland or drive straight through the English Channel. Hitler himself insisted on the Channel route presuming it would take less time. It was assumed by the British that most ships would try to sneak across the channel at night so as to make detection more difficult (though British aircraft were quite capable at night operations). However, as the German Admiralty was also well aware, a journey through the English Channel could take longer than a day. The fleet would be exposed at sometime during the day; it was just a question of where along the route this would take place.
French intelligence indicated that the fleet would leave in the early morning and steam through the channel during the day. British Naval intelligence dismissed this as possible but unlikely; the audacity of such a move would bring great risk to the two Battlecruisers as they would be exposed during the day. If the German Taskforce moved out through the night they would avoid travel through the narrow Straits of Dover during daylight, an especially dangerous proposition. However Admiral Ciliax, the man in charge of executing the operation, intended to do just that. It was a move that could catch the English unawares.
Indeed, the British were not prepared at all. Ten destroyers had been dispatched under the command of Admiral Ramsay, only six of which would be of any use in attacking capital ships. These ships would patrol near the Thames in a position to intercept ships passing by Dover. Further to the west was a motley detachment of thirty-two Motor Torpedo Boats, all seriously out of date and under gunned. To cover these ships were over 300 planes, but the vast majority of them were unwieldy bombers. Only a few Swordfish and Beaufort torpedo bombers were available. Vice-Admiral Ciliax had assembled a small but tightly knit taskforce to make the journey. In addition to the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, there were a total of six destroyers in escort with an additional compliment of E-Boats. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen also accompanied the Taskforce. They would travel in a defensive formation, with the destroyers leading the way and protecting the flanks with the E-Boats screening for other smaller enemy vessels. Protection of the two Battlecruisers was of the utmost importance.
The time to actually move the ships out would not come until February 11th of 1942. The convoy of ships steamed out at 0130 hours and made way for the channel. They would have good luck on this voyage from the beginning. Patrol craft that were supposed to be searching for enemy craft were plagued with technical malfunctions and were not replaced with new patrols. It wouldn’t be until a squadron of Spitfires accidentally stumbled upon the taskforce that the Royal Navy and Air Force were aware of any Kriegsmarine activity in the area. It was now 1042 hours and the British now had to scramble to intercept the German ships.
Given the assembly of craft assigned to guard the channel there was not much they could do. This assembly of craft was already insufficient for their task but the total lack of coordination between individual elements of the defense force exacerbated the problem. First the motor torpedo boats gamely went out to try to do some damage to the taskforce. These were swiftly repelled by the German E-Boats, which sank most of them in rapid succession. These would be followed by a lone squadron of Swordfish torpedo bombers. While courageous in their attempt to attack the taskforce without proper support, the ships failed to penetrate the anti-aircraft fire put up by the taskforce.
Further aerial attacks proved ineffective as coastal fighters from France came out to drive off attackers and targeting the fast moving fleet grew more difficult. Further coordination problems had sent torpedo bombers to the wrong coordinates with no fighter cover. To make matters worse the destroyers had wandered north for firing exercises and now had to speed south to intercept the taskforce. They would arrive in time to unleash one ineffectual volley, which received punishing return fire from the German taskforce. It was 1600 hours and the weather had deteriorated removing any hope of tracking the taskforce any further.
Things did not go perfectly for the Germans. After losing sight of the British defenses and the English Channel, The Scharnhorst hit a mine at 1431, an hour before the destroyers attacked. The damage was repaired and the Scharnhorst steamed onward only to hit a second mine. The ship was indeed proving lucky and had a capable crew of engineers on board as she shrugged off the second blow and continued on her way. The Gneisenau, which went ahead of the Scharnhorst when she was hit, also stuck a mine but managed to make her way home as well. The taskforce made a successful journey, but their luck would run out soon. The Gneisenau would not sea combat operations again, being severely bombed while at Kiel. The Scharnhorst would return to the seas in 1943, only to finally be trapped by the Royal Navy.
Scenario Card Description: At 1130 hours on February 12th, 1942 a German convoy of ships is spotted as they try to negotiate enemy waters in the English Channel. Both the Scharnhorst and her sister ship the Gneisenau must quickly make their way through the channel and past British defenses.
Maps: Use Battle Map #6 for this scenario. Place islands on the following Sectors, E4, H6, I3. Coordinates are calculated from the bottom of the map, letters horizontal and numbers vertical.
Combined English Air and Naval Forces:
HMS Javelin x 6
PT Boat x 2
Swordfish x 2
Mines x 4
Taskforce under Vice-Admiral Ciliax:
Scharnhorst x 2
Karl Galster x 1
Axis ships are deployed in Sector A2
The two PT Boats are deployed in Sector B8. The six HMS Javelin’s are deployed at the beginning of turn four in the following Sectors (J7, K7, K6). Mines are deployed as per special rules in Sectors with letters E or higher.
Victory Conditions: Victory is determined immediately when there are no Axis ships present on the board:
For each Hull Point of Damage inflicted on either of the two Scharnhorst’s: 1 pt Allies The Axis receive point equal to 15 – the turn on which the entire Axis Fleet moved off the map (Allies automatically win if the Axis fleet is destroyed instead).
Axis ships may leave the map during the movement phase if they are in Sector (K7)
Mines are deployed using the following rules:
- Before deployment any player who has mines may secretly right down sector coordinates equal to the number of mines they are allowed to deploy.
- If at any time a ship (whether friendly and not) moves into a sector which is written down, the minefield is revealed (place a marker on that sector). That ship must immediately make a roll. On a result of 4-6, that ship takes one Hull Point worth of damage.
- Any ship entering a sector with a reveal minefield must make a roll. On a result of 5-6, that ship takes one hull point of damage.
- Any ship that moves out of a sector containing a minefield that has moved into this sector on the same turn must make a roll. On a result of 4-6, that ship takes one Hull Point worth of damage.